The American sitcom might be our most overlooked form of balladry, particularly as calcified by MTM Enterprises into a gag writer’s roundelay with vaguely topical plotlines. A tradition proudly swelling with predictability, the sitcom’s appeal lies in its sturdy, structural sameness—in the unabashed rotation of pompous schemes, reductive desires, and requisite third-act re-stabilizations that comedians adapt to suit the needs of the zeitgeist and their signature sense of humor. Granted, the oft-criticized reliance on “safe” tropes engenders mediocrity, but it’s also provided a commercial-friendly canopy for many covert subversives. Much like the shit-house westerns and noirs that Manny Farber championed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the “underground” sitcom numbly buys into its cookie-cutter edges wholesale while clandestinely chewing the borders of its own exhausted template.
One can discern an unobstructed path of influence and heritage from the heyday of U.S. multi-cam TV comedy up to The Norm Show, a near-textbook “underground” sitcom that ran for three brief seasons between 1999 and 2001. Writer Jerry Belson of Dick Van Dyke Show and Odd Couple fame consulted, Tommy Smothers guest starred as Norm’s father in one of the program’s funniest plot arcs, and co-creator Bruce Helford had previously exercised executive control over undeniably MTM-inspired “nouveau family” laugh-trackers like Rosanne and The Drew Carey Show. At a cursory glance, The Norm Show doesn’t deliver much more than the innocuous socio-political frankness of those stand-up personality-helmed gimmick fests, even if it’s clearly encrusted with more late-Clinton-era Dionysian frivolity (when the writers decided to “get real” they tackled issues with conveniently built-in punch lines like sexual intimacy rather than more dour pills such as economic downturn). But standing slumped and glassy-eyed amid the smoldering clearinghouse of syndication clichés like a stoned vigilante is Norm himself; his choppy, oddball vocal cadence and histrionic monotone form one of the most transparently mechanical, and consequently least dated, of late-20th-century primetime protagonists.
Norm MacDonald’s piddling network entertainment legacy has unfortunately been all but reduced to a Wikipedia footnote. One of SNL‘s most awkward yet consistent of Weekend Update anchors, MacDonald was unceremoniously booted from behind the news desk, and eventually the franchise altogether, after perversely refusing to dial back on his deadpan OJ murder non sequiturs (NBC’s West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer was a personal friend of Simpson’s). Still, what persists in memory isn’t the ribald derring-do of MacDonald’s act but his lazily staccato delivery. Traditional sketch performers will typically telegraph upcoming jokes with rhythmic cues like ironic pauses, sideways glances, and underscored interrogatives (several of which were lampooned gut-bustingly on the meta-minded Mr. Show); Norm’s gag-disseminating crescendos, however, are like blinking, Brechtian arrows daring us to laugh even though we’re being ostentatiously told to.
In one episode of The Norm Show, MacDonald’s on-screen avatar mistakes a Necrophiliacs Anonymous assembly for a gambling addiction program; after realizing his error he quits the room in disgust, then returns momentarily to forbid them from violating his body should anything unexpectedly fatal befall him in the hallway. It’s a cheaply edgy resolution to an unlikely scenario, but Norm’s voice wavers with such artificial apprehension and unevenly inserted, tempo-maintaining tics (“I’ll tell ya that!”) that we smile at the rollicking showmanship. A similarly off-kilter bon mot about a potentially queer ancillary character cascades brusquely from Norm’s lips as though he’s not entirely conscious of what he’s idiomatically mixed up: “He’s as gay as a gay dollar bill!” Sporting random outbursts of irascible energy and compassion, as well as listless eyes that flit back and forth as though reading from ubiquitous teleprompters, the irresistible peculiarity of Norm’s humor springs from a dearth of self-aware dramaturgy.
This lackadaisical, ham-handed acting seems a breath of fresh über-camp compared to the sly character condescension rampant in The Office and Parks and Recreation, but the The Norm Show‘s retro stance can easily be interpreted as a verisimilitude-ditching handicap. The show’s dramatic impetus far-fetchedly fixes tax-evading, game-throwing hockey player Norm Henderson (Norm MacDonald) with a community service fulfillment gig at a social work office. And aside from some broad “blind leading the blind” municipal satire that Helford and his writing team wrench from the premise, it’s an unrepentantly contrived attempt to ensure continuing friction between the main character and his environment. (That having been said, the most refreshingly mean-spirited content revolves around clients with plausible but grotesque ailments such as chronic shyness or hirsuteness, all of which Norm creatively attempts to manipulate for his own selfish gain until giving up due to ennui or failure.)
Norm’s costars don’t offer much aside from a smoothly mundane sounding board either, but their dedication to the office romances of the wispy scripts highlights their protagonist’s disengaged demeanor. Artie Lange, who played a ne’er-do-well sibling in the intermittently watchable MacDonald film vehicle Dirty Work, shows up in the second season as Norm’s overweight, deadbeat brother; the thick-middled, effeminate Danny (Ian Gomez) seems more in need of social work than able to provide it; perpetually harried Max Wright (ALF) stutters and balks as the nebbish office supervisor; cute, plucky Nikki Cox has a borderline misogynistic role as a whore-turned-secretary; and Norm even keeps a pet dachshund, affectionately if tautologically named Weiner Dog, for maximum below-the-belt “aw” factor (by the pilot’s second act, the dog is scooting underneath furniture with a cloth rag affixed to its underbelly). Only Emmy-studded Laurie Metcalf, as the protective senior social worker Laurie, comprehends the counter-intuitive allure of MacDonald’s lassitude; whenever she’s got a bum line she makes sure she fumbles it into a lumpy, bland mess.
Helford’s company, Mohawk Productions, continued to churn out faux “live before a studio audience” throwbacks through the aughts (cf. the malodorous George Lopez), but by then single, handheld camera shows with more graceful zingers and thicker pathos were helping us laugh at our own Bush Mark II dismay. And there never was another pseudo-actor more up to the task of anchoring an inauspicious, one-chuckle-per-minute paean to the dumbing down of American humor. Norm’s degage grin still subtly smarts like a cold splash of modernity imploring us how many more committee-concocted jokes about dachshund sex we can withstand. A lot, it turns out.
The visual aesthetics of The Norm Show aren't anything beyond the typical '90s multi-cam, but the transfers here exude a homey, CRT tube warmth without much grain or noise. These standard discs withstand the blemish-revealing digital strength of 1080p upconversion and nearly transport me to my standard def high school days when I was still seeking out the program's original run. The audio mixes are adequate in all their monaural glory, but the shimmering clarity of the theme song—the jauntily mocking anthem "Too Bad" by Doug and the Slugs—shows off the brilliant butchering of the track's bridge by music editor John Hart.
If you thought Norm was a mite laidback on the show itself, you should hear him a decade later on the smattering of commentary tracks that accompany this DVD set; he's raspy, lethargic, and seems largely uninvolved. Co-creator Bruce Helford provides some interesting insights into the show's theoretical framework: For example, rather than writing about a guy with good intentions who couldn't catch a break, they wrote about an asshole the universe was constantly showering with shit. But these production anecdotes are hardly essential. The booklet offers much more concise memories of the brief two-year span that the program was on the air from both Norm and Helford. A few featurettes might have been nice, though; even some dachshund porn would do (watch out for Weiner Dog's stately shape in the DVD menus!).
Norm MacDonald's career-defining role as a misanthropic, egocentric dachshund owner on The Norm Show may have killed off the laugh-tracked sitcom with spiteful aplomb had it not been banished to the Friday night death slot.